Today’s lecture deals with the very nature of art and art appreciation. We’re just coming off the heels of modernist painting, and entering a new world following WWII and 50s prosperity (the cold war in full swing (red scare), Americans were spreading out to the suburbs, fathers were commuting to work in nice cars, mothers were cleaning house in their pearls). In the 60s, national consciousness shifted, the youth rebelled against these idyllic visions of family life. Race riots began (in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963), wars got started (Vietnam in 1964), leaders were assassinated (JFK in 1963, MLK in 1968), female contraception (“the pill”) became available (to married women) in 1965, and people began questioning the foundations of this thriving consumer culture. Also, the space race accelerated, begun by the Russians in 1957 and 1961 and continued by the U.S. in 1962 with the first American manned space flight. Neil Armstrong will walk on the moon in 1969. Art will begin to reflect these radical changes. In many ways, art of the 1960s then questions then assumptions about traditional “fine art”—what do we go see art for? To be elevated, enrapt? To contemplate existence? To receive pleasure? To escape the trivialties of everyday life in favor of timeless truths?
Clement Greenberg thought so. In his earlier essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939), Greenberg endows the avant-garde with the responsibility of preserving genuine culture, and protecting it from the fake culture produced by modern consumer societies, what he called “kitsch”. In a later essay, Modernist Painting , published in 1960, he outlined the natural evolution of modernist, or avant-garde, art and described its main characteristics (self-criticality, pure optical experience, and above all, flatness).
Vision (and the frame) is “the only condition painting shared with no other art.” (Greenberg) This evolution began with Manet, continued with the Impressionists, Cezanne, the Cubists, Mondrian, Pollock, and so on. So, following this evolution, what should modernist art look like today?
In 1949, Life magazine asked about Pollock, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” and in 1964 about Lichtenstein, “Is he the worst artist in the U.S.?” Perhaps Pop is largely seen as such because it emerged in the wake of modernist painting, which was often perceived as genuine, expressive, authentic, and sincere. T oday, I’d like to examine those assumptions. Is “pop art” really all those things? Is modernist painting really all those things? Are they really opposites as Greenberg would have us believe? And what does it tell us about ourselves, if anything at all?
This was the emblem for the exhibition, reproduced on the poster and on the front of the catalogue
BenDay dots are named after the 19th century inventor who invented this technique for producing shade in a printed image—a system of dots used to create gradations of shading; likened to pointillism, invented same time. This procedure gives the effect of mechanical reproduction, the antithesis of Abstract Expressionist painting, which is perceived as organic.
No one typifies this postwar phenomenon of the culture of spectacle and the breakdown of American social order in the form of accident and disaster than Andy Warhol. He had his hands in everything, from music production to fashion design to filmmaking, magazine publishing ( Interview magazine), to artist collectives (The Factory). The spectacle in his work was celebrity-obsessed America, an obsession which frequently took a disastrous tone so that celebrity became synonymous with death and destruction. But what Warhol showed us was not the pathos of this, but our immunity to it, our complete lack of feeling in the face of it and our voyeuristic delight in watching it happen (“if it bleeds, it leads”). He projected that in his public persona. Pop art of course relies on images from popular culture for its subject and style and Warhol more than anyone mirrored American pop culture in the 60s not only because of the subject matter he worked with, but also because he himself was a celebrity who catered to celebrities, and professed an uncritical loyalty to the beauty of popular culture, even if his works suggest differently.